The High Cost of Hybrid

By Lisa Block.

Our clients and leading industry associations (for example, PCMA’s latest glimpse of our industry’s future, the business recovery dashboard) are turning their attention to future hybrid and face-to-face (f2f) events. While everyone keeps saying that hybrid is here to stay, most association event pros have limited bandwidth and budget to plan and execute robust in-person and digital events simultaneously.

In part one of this post, I covered some of the significant risks our clients are facing as they bring back face-to-face events. Our roundtable of leading association event pros continues to discuss their challenges in applying solutions to these risk factors (financial, member affiliation, and health and safety). Many are focusing their resources and energy on delivering face-to-face.

Innovation and change require commitment and fortitude. Our participants indicate that some leaders want to return to their live events essentially as they were pre-Covid. But these forward-thinking organizers agree on one thing: Now is not the time to play it safe.

Planners must help their organizations move forward with creative ideas and innovations for their live events. Doing the same old meeting is familiar and comfortable, but the opportunity to develop a refreshed event strategy that embraces the power of f2f and digital delivery is imperative. Some of the most tradition-bound organizations are embracing the opportunity to take a hard look at their existing events and associated strategies and make changes in content delivery, attendee experience and create a stronger value proposition for sponsors and exhibitors. Planning and executing vibrant hybrid events is difficult no matter the size or complexity of the event. Here are some of the primary concerns our clients are facing:

Internal Staffing and Energy: 

Event teams from 2-20 are overwhelmed by the ramifications of hybrid events. Even the most seasoned among them are confounded with challenges on all fronts from new and changing safety protocols, exhibitor and sponsor expectations, contractual complexity, and vendor/venue readiness. Many wonder how they and their teams can deliver hybrid while maintaining some semblance of boundaries between their work and personal lives. They are struggling but determined to persevere.

Managing Up: 

Association Boards and CEOs have high expectations of event teams to deliver on their organizations pressing priorities. Our clients report that some leaders are resistant to hearing or understanding the complexities and expense of delivering hybrid events. Managing up requires transparency, fortitude, and a solutions-oriented approach to communication. Building a well-researched and targeted business case for two or more options is critical to achieving buy-in and support. Helping leaders to understand genuine concerns and challenges means being honest and vulnerable. While asking for what you and your team need to be successful may be unfamiliar to high-achieving event pros, no team can succeed without informed leadership support.

Platform Expense and Virtual Strategy:

Everyone understands doing hybrid events is harder and more expensive. Trying to forecast audience size for multiple modes of participation is also a challenge. Will pricy platforms with all the bells and whistles continue to be a primary source for creating virtual portions of hybrid events? Will associations embrace asynchronous events to help manage the revenue, spend, and workload?

We have been advocates for high-quality production investment and streamed session content and networking as a go-to strategy for some clients. Platform providers are developing and launching “light” solutions for events with fewer participants and/or requirements. Business event pros should be asking for solutions that fit their needs, not adapting their programs to platform specifications.

What’s Next?

As organizations shift their energy and resources to adapting safety protocols and freshening in-person conferences and trade shows, will the virtual event and platforms built to sustain them survive or even flourish? I question if the synchronous hybrid meetings, as many envision now, are sustainable.

I suspect there will be less emphasis on creating engaging virtual networking opportunities in the future. Platforms may become increasingly less relevant as organizers demand more robust event apps that are accessible for both audiences and require less investment. I’d place my bet on the app over the platform, as well as a growing need for planners to embrace product management principles to deliver more targeted and effective virtual content.

Bottom Line:

It is becoming evident that the additional cost of in-person safety protocols will be primarily the responsibility of the event organizer. The pressure on event leaders is significant between diminished revenue, additional costs for in-person events, and platform/content capture expense. The magnitude of loss for the entire industry is well documented. Still, the road to recovery is in jeopardy if event organizers are responsible for all of the expense and recovery risks.

About the Author: Lisa Block, EVP, Conference Strategy & Design, Velvet Chainsaw. Lisa joined VCC in April 2019 after spending nearly 30 years leading and growing the conference and events team and portfolio at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). She is an accomplished event innovator and change agent who strongly connects to organizational culture and mission. Her talent is in matching event and organizational purpose with live event design and strategy and in the people practices that go along with making events work. Lisa is active in numerous organizations, most notably PCMA, where she has served on numerous committees and as Board Chair. In 2013 she was awarded PCMA’s highest honour for lifetime achievement. She has also served on ASAE’s Meetings and Expositions Council and as an adjunct member of the ASAE Board of Directors. In 2015 she was inducted into the Washington, D.C. Biz Bash Hall of Fame.